How Romanticism Ruined Love

Romanticism emerged as an ideology in Europe in the mid-eighteenth century in the minds of poets, artists and philosophers, and it has now conquered the world. No single relationship ever follows the Romantic template exactly, but its broad outlines are frequently present nevertheless – and might be summed up as follows:

      1. Romanticism is deeply hopeful about marriage. It tells us that a long-term marriage can have all the excitement of a love affair. Romanticism took marriage and fused it together with the passionate love story to create a unique proposition: the life-long passionate love marriage.
      2. Romanticism united love and sex. Previously, people had imagined that they could have sex with characters they didn’t love, and that they could love someone without having extraordinary sex with them. Romanticism elevated sex to the supreme expression of love. Frequent, mutually satisfying sex became the bellwether of the health of any relationship. Without necessarily meaning to, Romanticism made infrequent sex and adultery into catastrophes.
      3. Romanticism proposed that true love must mean an end to all loneliness. The right partner would, it promised, understand us entirely, possibly without needing to speak to us. They would intuit our souls.
      4. Romanticism believed that choosing a partner should be about letting oneself be guided by feelings, rather than practical considerations. What matters is that two people wish desperately that it happen, are drawn to one another by an overwhelming instinct and know in their hearts that it is right.
      5. Romanticism has manifested a powerful disdain for practicalities and money. It feels cold – or just un-Romantic – to say you’ll know you’re with the right person because the two of you make an excellent financial fit or because you gel over things like bathroom etiquette and attitudes to punctuality.
      6. Romanticism believes that true love should involve delighting in a lover in their every aspect. True love is synonymous with accepting everything about someone. The idea that one’s partner (or oneself) may need to change is taken to be a sign that the relationship is on the rocks.

This template of love is a historical creation. It’s a hugely beautiful and often enjoyable one. The Romantics were brilliantly perceptive about some facets of emotional life and were extremely talented about expressing their hopes and longings. Many of the feelings had existed before, but what the Romantics did was elevate them, turning them from passing fancies into serious concepts which determine how to manage a relationship over a lifetime.

Romanticism has been a disaster for our relationships. It is an intellectual and spiritual movement which has had a devastating impact on the ability of ordinary people to lead successful emotional lives. The salvation of love lies in overcoming a succession of errors within Romanticism.

We’re surrounded by a culture that offers a well-meaning but fatally skewed ideal of how relationships might function. We’re trying to apply a very unhelpful script to a hugely tricky task.

In order to be thought normal in the age of Romanticism, many of the following are meant to happen:

      • we should meet a person of extraordinary inner and outer beauty and immediately feel a special attraction to them, and they to us.
      • we should have highly satisfying sex, not only at the start, but forever.
      • we should never be attracted to anyone else.
      • we should understand one another intuitively.
      • we don’t need an education in love.
      • we should have no secrets and spend constant time together (work shouldn’t get in the way)
      • we should raise a family without any loss of sexual or emotional intensity
      • our lover must be our soulmate, best friend, co-parent, co-chauffeur, accountant, household manager and spiritual guide.

Knowing the history of Romanticism should be consoling – because it suggests that quite a lot of the troubles we have with relationships don’t stem from our ineptitude, our own messed up inadequacy or our own regrettable choices of partners.

The idea of being ‘post-Romantic’ shouldn’t imply cynicism; that one has abandoned the hope of relationships ever working out well. The post-Romantic attitude is just as ambitious about good relationships, but it has a very different sense of how to honour the hopes.

We need to replace the Romantic template with a psychologically-mature vision of love we might call Classical, which encourages in us a range of unfamiliar but hopefully effective attitudes:

    • that it is normal that love and sex may not always belong together.
    • that discussing money early on, up-front, in a serious way is not a betrayal of love.
    • that realizing that we are rather flawed, and our partner is too, is of huge benefit to a couple increasing the amount of tolerance and generosity in circulation.
    • that we will never find everything in another person, nor they in us, not because of some unique flaw, but because of the way human nature works.
    • that we need to make immense and often rather artificial-sounding efforts to understand one another; that intuition can’t get us where we need to go.
    • that spending two hours discussing whether bathroom towels should be hung up or can be left on the floor is neither trivial nor unserious